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US tried to undermine Cuba by infiltrating its underground hip-hop scene

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US contractors sought to spark a youth movement through music, but the program was 'amateurish and profoundly unsuccessful'

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A US government agency spent more than two years trying to fuel political change in Cuba by covertly manipulating the country's underground hip-hop scene, according to an investigative report from the Associated Press. Documents obtained by the AP show that contractors hired by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) tried to promote certain Cuban hip-hop artists within the country in the hopes of bolstering a youth movement against the communist government of Raúl Castro. But the program backfired, putting targets at greater risk, forcing some musicians to flee the country, and threatening Cuba's thriving underground rap community.

At the center of the program is a Washington, DC-based company called Creative Associates International, which was paid millions to help subvert the Cuban government. Part of the contract work involved creating a fake Twitter-like social network in Cuba, which the AP reported on earlier this year. USAID later refuted the AP's report on the service, saying it contained "significant inaccuracies and false conclusions." On Wednesday, the agency repeated its claims that it does not engage in covert operations.

US sought to turn hip-hop groups into "agents of social mobilization."

"Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false," USAID said in a statement to the AP yesterday, adding that its mandate is to strengthen society "often in places where civic engagement is suppressed and where people are harassed, arrested, subjected to physical harm or worse."

The program was initially helmed by a Serbian contractor named Rajko Bozic, who, beginning in 2009, focused on a widely respected hip-hop group called Los Aldeanos. Creative spent thousands of dollars to promote the group with its own TV program and distributed it on DVD to avoid government censorship, funneling its funds through a company in Panama and a bank in Liechtenstein. Contractors also urged other artists to perform alongside Los Aldeanos, and later put the group through covert training "to focus them a little more on their role as agents of social mobilization," documents show.

Contractors apparently sought to infiltrate pro-government organizations as well. At one point, they approached a sex education organization run by the daughter of President Raúl Castro and urged them to participate in a festival Bozic organized in Serbia. In another instance, USAID contractors funded an arts and music festival organized by a singer with close ties to the government, with the aim of influencing "the minds of festival organizers with new ideas" and urging them to send "high-impact messages" to their audience. But by this point, Cuban authorities were on to the operation, and it soon fell apart.

Officials detained Bozic and seized his equipment, and later interrogated Adrian Monzon — the only Cuban who knowingly worked for Creative — over Bozic's links to the CIA. In 2010, Los Aldeanos performed at Rotilla, a major independent music festival in Cuba, and lashed out onstage against government officials and police. Cuban authorities then took over the festival, and Los Aldeanos soon relocated for Florida, saying they could no longer work in Cuba because of government pressure.